This Arizona town made 1,000 men — and its history — vanish

This Arizona town made 1,000 men — and its history — vanish

Bisbee ’17

True/False Film Fest, March 2, 2018
Film's Facebook page

In short: woulda coulda shoulda

In 1917, radicals with the labor movement I.W.W. descended on Bisbee, Arizona, to organize the men working the copper mines. Bisbee was a company town — everything, right down to the newspaper, controlled by the mine owners. That summer, more than 1,000 men walked off the job. Management ordered the strike broken.

On July 12, 1917, a sheriff’s posse twice that size marched the strikers at gunpoint into cattle cars, transported them to the New Mexico desert, and told them never to return. Those who stayed rarely talked about the Deportation, as that dark day came to be known.

Years later, the copper mine closed down and hippies moved in. Then Robert Greene discovered Bisbee.

The co-director of the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism in Columbia, Missouri, Greene latched onto the idea of having locals re-enact the Deportation 100 years to the day it happened, as cameras rolled.

The result, “Bisbee ’17,” is a mostly enjoyable concept documentary that employs a number of techniques to inform and amuse us while pulling us toward the grand finale. Local history buffs help Greene tease out the details of one of the most appalling union-busting actions in history.

Families who worked in the copper mines, and their descendants, still live in Bisbee. They believe that breaking the strike saved their town. The newcomers researching the Deportation, though, see it as “evil” and “an ethnic cleansing.” Greene enlists people from these groups to play characters on opposing sides of the strike — hoping, no doubt, to make sparks fly on re-enactment day.

Bisbee’s attempt at “real history” is contrasted with its nearby neighbor, Tombstone, which saved itself from extinction by building a tourism business as a “Second Amendment town.” Tombstone makes its mint on bad history, as good guys shoot the bad guys ten times a day at the OK Corral.

Of course, Bisbee is no better. Its main tourist draw is its old shuttered mine, still open for railcar tours, a whitewashed trip through the glory days of copper. 

Through monologues, movie-like scenes, and some musical numbers, “Bisbee ’17” proceeds slowly toward the re-enactment, which we see playing out more like a movie than a video of a public event. The idea that a “documentary” would be so scripted and staged shouldn’t come as a shock to viewers of last year’s excellent “Casting JonBenet.”

But that was about a single unsolved murder case. This is a catastrophe that destroyed hundreds of lives and families. I thought Greene was working way too hard in places trying to be entertaining, as though the story of the Deportation itself could not be trusted to carry an audience along.

And then there’s the re-enactment. Greene decides to use the whole town as his set, and makes no attempt to periodize it or remove automobiles, spectators, or even camera and boom mic operators from our view. Seeing a swarm of extras in Old West costumes yelling and fighting through the modern streets of Bisbee resembles nothing so much as the melee at the end of “Blazing Saddles.” It doesn’t quite work.

The us-against-them dynamic falls flat, too. One sign that Americans are polarized is that they live in ideological enclaves. But in Bisbee the hippies and the copper families live side by side and seem to get along fine.

All that said, the movie will provoke discussions about this long-suppressed story of violence against working people, and is worth seeing for that reason alone.

Dig deeper

An old U of Arizona website has a good blow-by-blow of the Deportation, and an eyewitness account of that day. (Apparently they didn’t have internet access in Bisbee until recently.) The Arizona State Archives have even more primary sources.

The Industrial Workers of the World was a little organization that thought big and had a lasting effect on American labor.

Like to feel smarter and watch better? Get 52 History Films You Must See and HISTORY IS POWER in your mailbox. Subscribe, it’s free!

More from History Is Power:

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published